WHERE TWO OR THREE ARE GATHERED: A Zen Priest Reflects on the Nature of Sacred Spaces

WHERE TWO OR THREE ARE GATHERED: A Zen Priest Reflects on the Nature of Sacred Spaces June 7, 2020






A Zen Priest Reflects on the Nature of Sacred Spaces

James Ishmael Ford

Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.
Come, yet again, come. Come.

Attributed to Jelaluddin Rumi


In this moment. At this time. We’re caught in a confluence of evils.

This moment we currently occupy has a backdrop of a highly contagious and deadly disease. Something that has shut down direct human interactions across most of the globe. After about two months and change, in the face of world-wide economic collapse, and so for some with desperation, and, well, for some boredom, and certainly here in America for some from bone-deep resentment at being told what to do however important it might be, people have started to emerge from their homes. Many masked, many not. Many taking reasonable precautions. Many not. A mixed bag no doubt with consequences to come down the road.

And, I can testify from my own tentative steps out, how delicious it can be.

And. And. And just at that as we’re beginning to look outward, we are confronted with an eight minute and forty-six second video of a white police officer placing his knee on a black man’s neck, slowly squeezing the life out of him. Metaphor and reality capturing everyone’s attention. Four hundred years of America’s original sin on display before the world. And, of course. How could it be otherwise? Marches around the world, statements of solidarity and calls to finally, finally address this evil, punctuated by acts of outrage and decency, peppered at night with rioting and looting, as well as resistance.

Something for everyone.

And for me, well, it makes me think about church. About spiritual communities. About the fact during these times, that place where many, probably most people gather in the worst moments, our sacred spaces are mostly not available to us. I think about this miracle of an alternative that has presented. Something not available in past plagues, but are available to most of us. Not all. But most. Internet platforms like Zoom. We’re seeing how they work, and how they don’t. With this I think of the idea of sacred gatherings and the physical places we are used to gather within, and what it all might mean.

In this moment. The one that is a confluence of evils.

Memories cascade across my heart. After I completed seminary in the early 1990s, I was called to serve an exurban church north of Milwaukee. It was an exhilarating experience. And I was stretched beyond anything I had imagined I was capable of.

Those first four years a great deal of my energy was devoted to taking the rudimentary instruction about preaching I had from seminary and applying it in ways that might actually be useful. In addition, I learned how to read a spread sheet and came to have a sense of what that means for an institution, and have no doubt a congregation is an institution, to understand the consequences when income and budget do not meet. And, most important, each day in new ways I struggled to learn how to be the person that people came to with their problems, spiritual, psychological, sexual, work, all manner of human relationship.

At this time Jan & I also moved my mother and auntie in with us. They brought just enough savings with them for a down payment on a house. While my salary wasn’t shall we say princely, we had jumped from poor, American poor, but poor, on to the bottom rungs of the middle class. That summer following my first year as a parish minister, Jan & I took our first vacation, ever.

While it was bumpy, and often painful, I was and continue to be grateful for those years. So, when it came time to leave that church, I felt deeply grateful, and I really wanted to do something of use for them. What I settled on as my gift was being truthful about their building.

It was a lovely bit of architecture, patterned on a dozen or more octagonal barns that had been built up along the western shore of Lake Michigan in the previous century. The interior for the sanctuary was startling in that way the functional can be beautiful. At the time I thought of it as a humanist cathedral. Today, I’d say the perfect meeting house for inheritors of the most radical edge of the radical reformation. Also, it would make a really great Zen temple.

But it did not meet the needs of the congregation. The sanctuary was large, waiting on a congregation two, maybe three times its size. While the space dedicated to religious education was, frankly, a disaster. The noise from that bedlam meant visiting families came once, then moved on to the downtown church with its many advantages, most of all its well-ordered classrooms. The downtown church was a place a family could grow spiritually together. Ours, was not.

In a letter to the congregation I said the church is not the building. And I said they should consider whether it wouldn’t be wise to consider selling the building and purchasing something better configured to who the church really was?

In a space that took something less than a single beat of the heart I moved from being an okay minister, someone they mostly liked, to someone who never quite got it, and who they were glad to see the back of. The other day I went to look at their website. I notice I’m not mentioned in their brief history. And, they’ve shrunk a bit since my time. That said they’re holding on. And the building? Ah, that humanist cathedral – it stands tall, now more weather beaten, and if anything, ever more lovely.

We humans take our sacred spaces seriously.

Over the course of my parish ministry I would end up serving two more congregations with significant buildings. One a perfect gothic chapel designed by the foremost neo-gothic church architect at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the other a magnificent example of the old New England Meeting House, if the builders were the upper crust of an affluent town. Which the builders of that building in 1820, very much were.

In all these cases the building always was in danger of overtaking the ministry of the churches I served. In the later two cases, the congregations managed to keep the balance between being custodians of something magnificent, genuine cultural treasures, while recalling the truth of that line: the church is not the building.

And here we are. Two months and change into the shutdown of public gatherings I find how much I miss the rundown ramshackle ex branch bank that is our Anaheim church. Even graceless architecture if used for gathering hearts, becomes lovely. I think of the Anaheim church, the building part of the church, as a sort of Velveteen Rabbit. The stuffing coming out of torn stitching and one eye is missing, spots here and there rubbed bare. But through some magical transformation, no doubt, a real church. Over its years the Anaheim church, the building, has become sacred space.

And. For the past several months we have been meeting via Zoom. We are now in some other place, our sacred gathering a hologram, images floating in the aethers. Much has been lost in that. And a few things have been gained.

The same is true for the Zen sangha I’m a part of. We no longer gather in a way that allows us to interact physically. The smells of incense, the play of light in the evening or morning, and the way the bells ring and echo, and our chanting, oh our chanting, are all gone. And yet people are gathering from across the continent. The Zen group now has people from Pennsylvania, Chicago, Seattle, Oakland, as well as Long Beach and Orange County.

What about that?

Today I want to reflect a little on two things. Sacred space. And that phrase “the church is not the building.” I believe these two things meet. And challenge. And, in the tensions between the two things, something powerful and true presents.

As the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell reminds us, our “sacred space is where (we) find ourselves over and over.” In antiquity this might be a grove, or a spot overlooking a vista. It can be a spot marked by a few stones piled one on the other. With the birth of history every culture creates such things in hopefully more permanent ways. Temples devoted to many gods. The gods may change, but often the spots remain. New communities put their temples on top of the ruins of the previous community. Sometimes this is an act of spite. But I suggest deeper currents are at play, as well. The hallowing of place by our presence. And the lingering sense from generations of use, of that particular gathering, different over time, and yet something persisting.

So, spaces can be sacred. Beautiful and homely. Spaces can be sacred.

And sometimes things exist for a time and then pass away. Like a Tibetan sand mandala. Love and attention. A moment. And then it is all swept up and like the Tibetan people themselves, migrations, and camps, and eventually deepening into new homes. Maybe like our Zoom gatherings for church and temple and Zen practice.

Frankly, I believe, it is good to be reminded the church is not the building. The sacred roosts for a time in a space. And that sacred gathering hallows a place. But. Something else is happening in our sacred gatherings that’s even more important.

I believe this more important can best be described in two lines from the New Testament. In the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 18, verse 22 Jesus is said to say, “Where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.” And, the other is in the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 17, verse 21, where Jesus is again quoted. Actually, with a bit of a twist as the critical word in the sentence has two meanings. It usually is translated as the “Kingdom of God is within you.” But it can also be translated as the “Kingdom of God is among you.”

Now neither Unitarian Universalists nor Zen Buddhists are big on biblical exegesis, the critical examination of Western sacred texts. But I believe there is a universalist wisdom in those passages, significant for people of any spiritual orientation. Part of the sacred thread of human spirituality. Wisdom for the ages.

The first passage is very important. It speaks of the church, our spiritual gatherings, as occurring when two or three come together. Not unlike the original meaning of Buddhist sangha, which was defined by a gathering, in their case of four monastics. And in our times by those who are present to each other. So, a gathering of bodies. Or, on Zoom, is that an avatar? A projection of our personness into the aethers? Somehow it works, even if we perhaps feel the avatar a bit too meta.

And I’m pretty sure there are limitations. Christians are struggling with whether they can genuinely do their communion service on the internet. Personally, it doesn’t look like one can. But. And. I know I long for that gathering with my body among other bodily creatures. And. Like a church building, important, but not, it turns out, the most important thing.

The gathering itself is the most important thing.

This is that “among.” And it is that “within.”

And there’s one more thing. The other factor that seems critical is our intention. What are we gathering for? Who are we gathering as?

In the face of the pandemic, we’re warned that gathering together physically can actually kill. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, not gathering together seems to be a condoning of a great evil. An evil that has been perpetuated by good people ignoring bad things.

A conundrum.

The Buddha told us the whole of the spiritual life is found in friendship.

I suspect that’s the bottom line of this. The buildings are important. Our physical gatherings are important. And, more important is what pulls us together. And that is friendship. That is attention and care, where we see something akin in another.

Here that song long attributed to the Sufi sage and poet Jelaluddin Rumi echoes in my heart.

Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.
Come, yet again, come. Come.

I like caravan. It is a moveable feast. The spaces are important. And they are secondary.

I also like the image of fire. The hint of danger is important to recall as well as the good when we’re speaking of sacred things. Here as we fan the flames of affection and see ourselves in others, then hope can burst forth as a cleansing fire. Even here over Zoom and Facebook and YouTube, we can catch that spark. And we can remember. Re-member. Come back together.

And out of that, from this sacred space, now here, now gone, we can find the inner resources to live lives worth living. Out of the mere act of our coming together, finding a moment of presence, we can be changed, and we can change.

Whatever comes down the road, we will meet it. Out of this mystery of friendship, out of the sacred space we create and create again, and which creates and creates us again, we might even meet the various ills and possibilities skillfully.

The possibility lies in our hearts.

And, of course, our hands.

And in each other’s courage.



(photograph of First Unitarian Church in Providence by Christopher Mayhew

"You're like a kid with a new word. Crazy. Ikkyu=Crazy Cloud. Alexis Zorba (real name=Georgios ..."

The Craziest Thing: The Zen Priest’s ..."
"Horsefly buzzing in my ear. Telling me a thousand years of truth!"

The Craziest Thing: The Zen Priest’s ..."
"James Ford's article is excellent in that it introduces Buddhism and its relation to society ..."

THE FIFTH OF JULY: A Buddhist ..."
"Dharma is the center of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. The Hindu bible "The Bhagavad ..."

Zen’s Oldest Text: Three Versions of ..."

Browse Our Archives